China Has Hipsters, Too

A study of the country's "cultured youth"

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"Cultured youth" reciting poetry aboard a subway in Shanghai (Weibo, via Tea Leaf Nation)

It's happened all over the world, and it's happening in China, too. As the country's middle class swells in number -- and its people discover the pleasures and disappointments of a life spent pursuing material comfort -- there has come the emergence of a distinct counter-culture. In Chinese, they are the wenyi qingnian (文艺青年), or wenqing for short, literally meaning "cultured youth." It's China's closest equivalent to the alternately beloved and reviled English word, "hipster." 

What does a typical "cultured youth" look like? Baidu Baike, China's version of Wikipedia, contains an entry on the term that quotes writer and musician Guo Xiaohan: "I'm a very typical wenyi qingnian. I like poetry, novels, indie music, European cinema, taking pictures, writing blogs, cats, gardening, quilting, making dessert and designing environmentally friendly bags." 

They are twee, nostalgia-driven, and hipster-ish, with a dash of poet. Spiritual at heart, yet living in a very secular, money-driven modern China, wenqing are marked as highly individualistic, romantic, cultural connoisseurs.

They are more likely to be middle-to-upper class city dwellers, and stand in deliberate contrast to their Louis Vuitton-bag toting, BMW-driving, nouveau riche counterparts so well-known in China. They are defined much less by what they own, and much more by how they think. And as Faye Li, a 27-year-old NGO worker in Beijing, said with a tinge of gentle mockery, "they always like to be different from everybody else."  

Like hipsters, wenqing stridently resist labeling themselves as such. The term "cultured youth" can divide Chinese audiences, alternately attracting admiration or derision. A perfect example recently emerged on Sina Weibo, one of China's popular microblogging sites, with this post entitled, "Photos of Shanghai 'cultured youth' girls aboard a subway reading poetry."

The post features a video showing three women dressed in striped dresses with tiny, feathered top hats pinned to their hair. On board a crowded subway carriage they read aloud a poem about nature. Some commenters congratulated the performers, commending them for their creativity and daring. But others called the video "rubbish" or noted that there did not seem to be much difference between "cultured youth" and "dumbass youth," written in Chinese Internet slang as "2B qingnian" (二逼青年).

One Internet user decried the three performers as inauthentic, writing, "Wenqing doesn't mean going through the motions; it's about the content, and even more about the feelings of the inner world. Go and live in the world of wenqing, and you'll realize it has nothing to do with age or gender." The commenter's own earnestness is a cultural hallmark of these "cultured youth."

A viral photo collage that has been reposted over 7,000 times on Sina Weibo may help to illuminate the precise differences between a "cultured youth" and a "2B youth." It illustrates a number of day-to-day activities, such as driving, writing and eating, but each is performed in three different styles: The ordinary way, the "cultured youth" way, and the "2B youth" way.

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Monica Tan is a Beijing-based journalist and a contributor to Tea Leaf Nation.

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